Germany During the Second World War
When, in the summer of 1950, after graduating from College, I returned to Germany from which our family had emigrated eleven years before, I gathered my first German impressions as an adult. I then wrote to my parents that quite aside from issues of Nazism, I found people to be quite rigid and bound by self-imposed rules—even self-righteous. My mother retorted that except for the Nazis, she saw nothing wrong with the German ethos—though that’s not how she phrased it. I was uncomfortable in Germany—my resolution to pretend that I didn’t speak the language lasted half an hour. However, my annoyance when I was repeatedly envied for having left before the war—my father was sent to Dachau on the Kristallnacht; as Jews, we were lucky to get out. I did not return to Germany for another thirty–plus years; not inadvertence. These thoughts were brought to mind by my reading, just completed, of Nicholas Stargardt’s book about how Germans experienced the second world war that had begun with their invasion of Poland.
In my view the book, The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945, is a brilliant achievement. The account of how the German population—from its soldiers and officials to ordinary inhabitants of every stripe—experienced the war, told with copious citations of letters and diary entries, makes fascinating and revealing reading from beginning to end. Here I want to make a few comments, just short of random and far short of a review, of which many can be found on the internet. But before doing so, let me confess that I was able to read this book because neither the participants of those events are still alive nor most of the generation after them—while their contemporary descendents, I optimistically believe, have assumed views and attitudes quite distinct from the personages that populate Stargardt’s book.
My comments mostly concern what was news to me. Let me start at the top. Hitler is more offstage than on. Of course he makes speeches now and then and he is reported to give orders to the military and to appoint and dismiss leading military leaders, but he makes far fewer appearances than I would have expected. However, that does not mean that he is not emphatically present in the minds of a very large proportion of the population whose fervent patriotism attaches them equally to the Führer and to the Vaterland.
The high-level governmental officer with is a much more frequent presence is Goebbels in his role as minister of propaganda. He regularly writes pieces that are widely read, he makes frequent pronouncements and gives orders to a variety of purveyors of propaganda, in writing and on radio; he also gives directions to the worlds of theater and film. Goebbels is concerned both to shape the beliefs of the German population and very much about their morale. What struck me about him, given his beliefs as a faithful Nazi and devotee of Hitler, he is not at all a hack, but clearly very perceptive, really smart.
In part in consequence of effective propaganda, but also rooted in a much longer and deeper tradition of what I will just label as German patriotism: sentimental and ideological attachment to the Vaterland, to the Heimat. That pervasive mindset accounts for a lot that went on between 1939 to 1945. Enthusiasm for the war at the start, stick-to-it-ness as it developed with significant ups and downs and, finally, the stubborn unwillingness to give up until the bitter—very bitter—end.
Jews, are a multifaceted topic. While, rightly, given its subject, the book does not include an account of the systematic murder of Jews in Auschwitz and other death camps, it does report about what the population knew. But otherwise, Jews are incessantly invoked. Jews are the agents of the Soviet Union, Jews are behind the American participation in the war against Germany: you name it, and it’s because of the Jews. It is so mechanical, so routine and certainly not based on any knowledge. Irony: when prominent representative of American Jews asked that the rail tracks to Auschwitz be bombed, they were turned down because their proposal didn’t fit into Allied plans for the war.
In any case, incredible powers were attributed to Jews; and since only a few were left in Germany during WW II, whatever was the rhetorical value of that appeal, it basically came to not very meaningful slogans.
Finally and most seriously, I was shocked and amazed about the killing that went on throughout this period. Executing—that is, just shooting—Jews of course, prisoners, inhabitants of conquered towns, women and children very much included, killing German soldiers thought to be laggards. Killing people became well nigh routine. No procedures: no finding guilty under some rule or law. Some official, some authority high enough not to be questioned, decided on the death of a group of individuals and that was that. On numerous occasions what even Germany’s enemies thought were the rules of war were wantonly disobeyed.
Denazification after the war (and after the conclusion of this book) did not deal with these issues. It would take the passing of the warring generation to restore Germany to the status of a Rechtststaat.